Ellis Island’s Forgotten Hospital

Ellis Island’s Forgotten Hospital

When most New Yorkers think of Ellis Island, they probably recall the Great Hall where 12 million immigrants were processed, which opened to the public in 1990 after three decades of neglect and disrepair.

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The buildings on Ellis Island’s southern side once included a ward for immigrants with measles, above. (Photo: Keith Meyers/The New York Times)

When most New Yorkers think of Ellis Island, they probably recall the Great Hall where 12 million immigrants were processed, which opened to the public in 1990 after three decades of neglect and disrepair.

But unknown to most people is the fact that Ellis Island contains a long-forgotten 22-building hospital complex, which during its busiest years, from 1902 to 1930, was one of the largest public health undertakings in United States history, and a place of heartbreak and hope, sickness and recovery.

Since 1998, Lorie Conway, a Boston-based journalist and documentary filmmaker, has worked to uncover the hospital’s history. She received exclusive access from the National Park Service to film at the abandoned hospital for two years.

She stepped into buildings overgrown with ivy and filled with asbestos and broken glass. She traveled across the country to find records in dusty government archives. She tracked down descendants of long-dead immigrants, here and abroad.

The fruits of her nine-year effort are a book and documentary (and accompanying Web site) titled “Forgotten Ellis Island.” The film had its premiere on Monday at Ellis Island.

On Thursday evening, Ms. Conway screened excerpts from the documentary before a crowd of 40 people at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She was joined by Alan M. Kraut, a historian at American University.

Ruth J. Abram, the founder of the museum, introduced the presentation by noting the ambivalent attitude toward immigrants that Americans have long held.

“At the same time we needed them, we feared them and their strange languages and customs,” she said. “We did not yet have the knowledge to cure them of tuberculosis or trachoma or cholera, or to stem the spread of disease, whether imported or homegrown. And so we moved to contain them at Ellis Island, thus instituting one of the most extensive public health operations the world had ever seen.”

Ms. Conway made her film on a fairly slim budget, consisting mostly of three grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, totaling $540,000.

Save Ellis Island, a nonprofit group that is trying to raise money to reopen some of the 29 abandoned buildings at Ellis Island, including the hospital complex, hopes Ms. Conway’s film will aid the effort. Claudia B. Ocello, the group’s associate director for education and public programs, said the group had so far raised enough money to stabilize all 29 buildings and reopen one of them, the Ferry Building, which opened in April and contains an exhibition about immigration and public health on Ellis Island. Ms. Ocello said the group aimed to open an Ellis Island Institute in the long abandoned buildings.

Ms. Conway said the inspiration for her project was “The Other Ellis Island,” a 1998 article by Clyde Haberman in The New York Times Magazine that discussed the decrepit condition of the 29 buildings, which were cited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s most endangered places.

Ms. Conway showed about 36 minutes from the roughly hourlong film. The film is replete with historic photographs, interviews with scholars and immigrants and their family members, and haunting vistas of ghostlike hospital wards. The hospital was built on rock and dirt excavated from the construction of the city’s subway system.

The film points out that medical inspections were directed at those immigrants who traveled in second or third class and that for wealthier immigrants, entry into America – and citizenship — was nearly automatic.

Those less fortunate had to submit to physical inspections that required stripping off all of one’s clothing – an entirely foreign concept, particularly to many immigrant women. Some immigrants had no idea what X-ray machines did; others were fearful that their clothing – or the money sewn inside its seams – would be stolen.

Immigration inspectors and officers from the United States Public Health Service conducted the reviews. A chalk mark – given to about one in five immigrants – meant separation from family, an involuntary hospital stay and, possibly, deportation. Fathers were separated from their wives and children, and a single sick child could require everyone – parents and siblings – to return home.

In 1914, the hospital, by then fully operational, treated 10,000 patients from 75 countries. Feelings of isolation and abandonment, particularly among children, were common.

In the documentary, John Gauqer, who emigrated from France in 1929, at age 5, recalls that he only spoke French when he arrived at Ellis Island. He was held at observation.

“They took me away from my mother,” Mr. Gauqer, now 83, recalled, his English without even the faintest trace of an accent. “I didn’t know what was happening, she didn’t know what was happening, and I was here in this place away from her, never knowing if I was going to see her again.” (He ultimately recovered and was allowed to enter the country.)

Anne Rierson, who emigrated from Sweden in 1925, recalled worrying that her parents had gone on without her. Elizabeth Martin, who arrived from Hungary in 1920, remembered kind nurses who tried to comfort the children, touching their cheeks and holding their hands.

The hospital school taught personal hygiene and the three R’s to the children, not to mention neatness and good manners.

The hospital’s autopsy amphitheater contained a well-known eight-cadaver refrigerator and became a renowned teaching hall, with medical observers from Bellevue and other teaching hospitals in attendance.

Ms. Conway found that hundreds of thousands of patient records had essentially disappeared; she hopes that her film will turn up new clues as to where they have been moved.

Over years of research, Ms. Conway said, she was able to find only one complete patient record — that of Ormond J. McDermott, an Australian who was not trying to immigrate, but merely visit to New York, in 1921. He accidentally left his passport on a ship, and was detained at Ellis Island while the authorities investigated his claims to be a sales apprentice, rather than a contract laborer. While on Ellis Island, he developed scarlet fever; he died. Mr. McDermott’s file ended up at the State Department after his father, part of an influential Australian family, filed a complaint and asked for an investigation.

Ellis Island, including the hospital, faded from use after the United States adopted tight immigration restrictions in 1921 and 1924, with nativists alarmed at the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

Ms. Conway’s film explores a particularly ugly side of Ellis Island’s public health history: the influence of now-discredited eugenic beliefs. Doctors would use metal calipers to measure the circumference of immigrants’ heads, believing that ethnicity and race were expressed in physical variation among people.

On the film, an immigrant named Leah Shain remembers an aunt, Pearl, who was detained at Ellis Island for being mentally ill — the family maintains she was not. Pearl was deported back to Europe and later died in the Holocaust. Fiorella H. La Guardia, who worked as a translator at Ellis Island, wrote that many of the immigrants classified as mental cases “were so classified because of ignorance” — the ignorance of both the immigrants and the so-called medical experts.

Despite that sad history, in any year, only 3 percent of immigrants were deported: fewer than 1 percent for contagious diseases and about 2 percent for other causes. But because they knew of someone who had sent back — or knew someone who knew someone who had been sent back — the prospect terrified immigrants.

Ms. Conway and Dr. Kraut both view the Ellis Island hospital as a relative public health success. No major epidemic was ever traced to an immigrant who entered America after being treated at the hospital. Nine of 10 patients treated at the hospital were cured and allowed to enter the country and begin the road to citizenship.

The hospital, in decline since the 1920s, was finally abandoned in 1954. Ms. Conway said the Coast Guard, its last tenant, did not even bother to close the doors and windows, leaving behind everything from muffin tins and soup tureens to clothing trunks and window shades.

Ms. Conway noted that the authorities could simply have erected cinder block quarantine facilities, instead of a state-of-the-art hospital. “Statistically, it was a great success, the line of first defense against these contagious diseases that were unattenuated — we did not have antibiotics,” Ms. Conway said during the question-and-answer session. “It is remarkable to me that the mortality rate was as low as it was.”

Dr. Kraut said the Ellis Island health effort was arguably the biggest federal bureaucratic endeavor since the Civil War. “The fact that it was done with enormous compassion is an extraordinary tale,” he said, describing the quality of care over all as “quite extraordinary.” The germ theory of disease had been developed only fairly recently — in the late 19th century — but antibiotics were not yet available.

Ms. Conway noted that most of her filming was done by 9/11. Parks officials repeatedly reminded her afterward that her virtually unfettered access to the abandoned hospital would have been unthinkable after the terror attacks.

Ms. Conway has sent the final cut of her film to PBS, and she hopes it will be broadcast on public television. She is also looking to screen the film at festivals and possibly theaters.